“Laugh, I thought I’d die!”
Lady Boy Friends the Series is available around the world now. You can get an idea what it is all about from this short trailer or this long trailer. As the trailer cut lines put it: ซีรีย์ที่จะพาคุณเข้าไปสู่โลกของนักเรียนมัธยมชายล้วน ที่เต็มไปด้วยเรื่องราวต่างๆ สะท้อนความเป็นจริงในสังคมปัจจุบัน รวมถึงเรื่องราวบางอย่างของมัธยมชายล้วน ตั้งแต่อดีตจนถึงปัจจุบัน ที่คุณอาจจะเคยสัมผัส หรืออาจจะยังไม่เคยรู้มาก่อน “The series takes you into the world of school boys unrestrictedly, reflecting current reality including some kinds of stories from the past to the present that you may or may not have touched.” Now that’s discreet. The title in Thai is เพื่อนกัน มันส์ดี which might mean “Exciting Friends” but could also mean “Provocative Friends” or “Stimulating Friends”. The English title tries to rip off the subtlety by labeling the friends “lady boys”.
A friend in San Francisco texted messages about this series to which I responded, “This is one of the ways we exaggerate, exploit and marginalize ‘kathoeys’ here. You know it is going to be from the very moment the term ‘Lady Boy’ is used because the term is demeaning and has no equivalent in Thai.” The term “lady boy” is widely used to refer to younger males in Thailand who deliberately display effeminate types of expression. The term “lady boy” has no positive connotation; it is always derogatory in one way or another. It is a linguistic invention to try to communicate to English language users that the male in question is not authentic, is cross-dressing, may be devious or even dangerous, and could be mistaken for a female prostitute by the unwary. The only meritorious application of the term is when it is used to indicate a transsexual beauty contestant, and even then it is reluctant praise inferring “imagine that!”
Perhaps I owe my friend in San Francisco an explanation about what I mean by the judgments that the series is “exaggerated, exploitative, and marginalizing” of kathoeys.
One of my friend’s friends commented that the clip was “too gay”. There were only two acceptable representations of gay life in the media in Thailand. Either we were serious and we die, or we were ridiculous and we were not serious. One of the predictable clown types in Thai movies and soap operas is a kathoey, or better yet, two of them. But there is a kathoey sub-culture in Thailand, as elsewhere where persons of minority sexual orientations are relegated to a sub-status and migrate into a survival tribe complete with totems and slang. One night this week a group of gay and kathoey friends gathered at our house. They were a challenge to my evaluation of the lady-boy stereotype as an exaggeration. Among themselves they were as campy as possible, outdoing one another with slurs and brags (just as some of the guys in the movie trailer were doing). Some of the group had invested small fortunes in silicone transplants which they emphasized by proportionally reduced amounts of clothing. But the spectrum extended all the way to the guys who had spent similar fortunes on steroids and/or body building. Was that their “reality”? The movie makers want us to think so. Underneath the social veneer of an upper-class high school there is this alternative reality, and if we peek into it we will see how funny and pathetic and ultimately tragic it is. The other reality for our party goers is that the next day they went back to being a hotel manager, a physician, a couple of actors, two florists, five college students, a banker, 10 diverse others, and me. Is there a reality behind the film series? Yes, but it is misrepresented.
That brings us to exploitation. I call it exploitation when the survival tactics of a threatened sub-culture are used to entertain those who are living so safely they cannot even imagine how these kids are dancing to get by. Exploitation movies are potential gold mines. Hollywood knows that better than anybody. Here in Thailand we can exploit kids and get away with it. In the first place, teen-age movies are targeting their largest customer base, of course. If you made a movie about aging kathoeys, and we do age, no teenagers would go to see it, and neither would we because our reality is not as มันส์ดี, not as exciting or provocative. It is more fun to think about what the kids are up to. But in the second place teen-age provocateurs are less challenging to the culture-police, those guardians of the social image. The same stories told about older people are simply seamy and sick, beyond what is tolerable. In fact, we dare not put older people into those story-lines except as antagonists or foils.
However, maintaining cultural norms is part of what those movies are about. It would never do to have the “third sex” gain respectability. What would they want next? Full human rights? It is far better, the culture-monitors (and I use that in the monitor lizard sense) believe, to keep kathoeys somewhat detestable. What better way than by constantly representing them as a-typical, conflicted but basically happy in their little world getting along just fine with each other, and vaguely pathetic. Vilify them or zooify them … put them into an acceptably remote box where we can laugh at them.
Rev. Dr. Kenneth Dobson posts his weekly reflections on this blog.